Superhero Makeovers: The Incredible Hulk, part one
Is he man or monster or…is he both?
I’ve been putting this off for a while. Don’t get me wrong – I love the Hulk. He’s my favorite comic book character, and quite possibly my favorite literary character ever. If I ever got the chance, I’d put up with all the bullshit politics, editorial mandates, and fan whining in the comic book industry just to get a shot at writing this character. But actually documenting the number of changes he’s gone through…well, let’s just say that we’re definitely in for a multi-part rant here.
At his core, the Hulk is a simple concept. Inside each of us there dwells a raging fury. When Bruce Banner’s temper boils over, he becomes the embodiment of rage: a 7-foot tall, 1,000-pound force of unfettered fury that can casually knock over a city. Perhaps because the concept is so simple, a lot of different writers have played around with it. The result is something that can best be summed up with what I like to call the Incredible Hulk Drinking Game. The rules are simple: take a shot when, during the Hulk’s history, one of the following happens:
- The Hulk changes color,
- The Hulk’s transformation pattern changes,
- The Hulk changes personality,
- And take a bonus shot if this change is not given any explanation in the story.
(Warning: do not actually participate in the Incredible Hulk Drinking Game. You will die of alcohol poisoning.)
Ready for a doozy? Here we go…
The Coming of the Hulk:
The Incredible Hulk was created in 1962 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. He was partly an attempt by Marvel Comics to cash in on the popularity of the Thing, who had been introduced earlier that year as part of the Fantastic Four, and partly just Lee and Kirby doing an amalgamation of two popular movie monsters.
Brilliant scientist Bruce Banner was contracted by the military to create a devastating new weapon known as the gamma bomb. At the bomb’s first test, a teenager named Rick Jones drove onto the testing field on a dare. Banner raced to save the teen, ordering his assistant Igor Dreknov to stop the test. Igor, actually a Soviet spy (who would have guessed with that name?!), sees a chance to get rid of Banner and his weapon and doesn’t stop the countdown. Banner saves Rick, but is caught in the blast. Although many miles from ground zero, his body is bombarded with gamma radiation. That night, he transforms into the gray-skinned, ill-tempered behemoth soon to be known as the Hulk.
At his core, the Hulk is a combination of the Frankenstein monster, a creature born of science and not meant for this world, and Mr. Hyde, a monstrous alter-ego to a meek scientist. And while most people know him as a intellectually limited creature with green skin who transforms when Bruce Banner gets angry, that wasn’t the case at the outset. The original Hulk was gray-skinned, matching the darker tone that Lee and Kirby wanted for the story. He was thuggish in intellect, but capable of normal speech. And instead of transforming when Banner got angry, he transformed at night, turning back into Banner at daybreak (thus adding a touch of another popular movie monster, the Wolf Man, into the mix). The Hulk was also significantly weaker in his first appearance than he was later on. While he couldn’t be dropped by gunfire, bullets did pierce his skin, and a collision with a jeep wounded him. Like many other superheroes, the Hulk would gain massive powerups as the stories become more far-fetched. Regardless of the changes that were in store for him, though, the Hulk quickly became one of Marvel’s most popular and iconic characters. As a fan, I know that I was drawn in by two major factors. First, I was a skinny nerdy kid with anger issues, so it was gratifying to see a skinny nerd with anger issues be able to Hulk out and flip over a bus when he got ticked off. Second, I loved old monster movies. Never underestimate the selling power of a character who is basically Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Frankenstein monster, and the Wolf Man combined.
Six Issues and Out:
Despite his popularity, volume one of The Incredible Hulk only made it six issues before getting canceled. What my research (i.e., anecdotal evidence gleaned from comic book message boards) has uncovered is that the Hulk’s cancellation had more to do with publishing limitations than popularity. Apparently, Marvel was only able to print a certain number of books at the time, and when Spider-Man became a big hit, someone’s book had to get axed to make room for the new kid. That someone, it seems, was the Hulk – which was just as well, since Stan Lee never could decide what he wanted to do with the character.
To illustrate the latter point, if you are playing the ill-advised drinking game, take ten shots right off the bat for just the first six issues. In the span of six issues, the Hulk went through the following changes:
- His skin color changed from gray to green. This was because the gray color from issue #1 didn’t remain consistent from panel to panel, so Stan Lee decided to switch up the skin color for issue #2. He picked green because, according to him, there weren’t a lot of other green-colored superheroes out there. I guess at the time Stan didn’t read the distinguished competition’s comics, where they had the Green Arrow, the Green Lantern, and the Martian Manhunter, just for starters. Anyway, this change didn’t get mentioned on-panel until the 1980s, so take a bonus shot for the lack of an explanation.
- A blast of cosmic rays in issue #3 made it so the Hulk no longer changed based on a day/night cycle. For the duration of that issue, Banner would be stuck as the Hulk.
- That same blast of cosmic radiation made the Hulk mindless, controlled telepathically by Rick Jones. Good thing for Rick, too, since the Hulk had tried to kill him no less than three times by that point.
- By issue #4, Banner gained control of his transformations by bathing himself in more gamma rays to transform. This would later get retconned into the Hulk mentally manipulating Banner, since trying to control a gamma-powered creature by blasting it with more gamma rays is the equivalent of trying to cure lung cancer by smoking a lot.
- As a side effect of the gamma blasts, Banner gained control of the Hulk, able to retain his intellect while in the Hulk’s body. However…
- Not too long into the first “Banner Hulk” run, Banner became more thuggish and belligerent while in Hulk form, representing the creature’s rage clouding Banner’s intellect even when he was repressed.
- Issue #6 featured an unusual series of transformations. First, when using the gamma gun to transform into Banner, the Hulk retained Banner’s head. For a little while, he was forced to wear a Hulk mask to conceal his identity. (Yes, the Hulk had a secret identity for a remarkably long period of time.)
- Later in issue #6, the Hulk was knocked out in a battle with a villain called the Metal Master. Some soldiers found him as he was regained consciousness and realized he was wearing a mask. They removed the mask, only to discover the Hulk’s normal head underneath. Just like that, the Hulk was all Hulk again.
- Finally, when the Hulk tried using Banner’s gamma device to change back into Bruce, the effect was delayed for a while, initially making the Hulk believe that he was stuck in his monstrous form forever. The gamma gun would get sidelined down the line, as it was pretty obvious by now that the effects were unstable.
In addition to all of this appearance tomfoolery, the Hulk’s personality changed quite a bit over these six issues. Initially, the Hulk was a potentially murderous creature. He tried to kill Rick Jones multiple times, since Rick was the only person who knew his secret identity. In issues #2 and #6, he openly debated whether or not to try to take over the world. But at the same time, he showed some heroic traits, saving the world multiple times and gaining a pardon from the President by issue #6. He retained Banner’s love for Betty Ross, the daughter of his rival, General “Thunderbolt” Ross. Stan Lee always took a few issues to nail down the personalities of his characters (see also: Professor Xavier the ephebophile or Gwen Stacy’s original personality as a trollop who was only interested in Peter Parker because he was “the only boy I’ve met who hasn’t given me a tumble!”), but he turned that trait up to 11 when dealing with the Hulk.
The Most Popular Guest Star on the Block:
The Hulk was gone but not forgotten. He became the focus of some of Marvel’s first Silver Age crossovers. Immediately after his own series went on hiatus, he guest-starred in Fantastic Four #12, beginning his rivalry with the Thing. By the time Avengers #1 rolled around in 1963, the Hulk had taken on a new secret identity, posing as Mechano, a robotic elephant-juggling clown. I included a scan just in case you think I’m joking. The disguise actually held out until Loki, the Norse god of mischief, decided to mess around with the Hulk’s life, framing him for a crime he didn’t commit and bringing him into conflict with Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, and the Wasp. Loki’s plan backfired, and the Hulk teamed up with those superheroes, forming the Avengers. That’s right, the Hulk was a member of the Avengers…for about an issue and a half. By issue #2, a case of mistaken identity turned his teammates against him, and the Hulk decided to leave the group due to the fact that they would always see him as a monster. A few issues later, he teamed up with the Sub-Mariner and became a full-on villain, out to conquer the world again and earning even more hurt feelings when Rick Jones left him to become Captain America’s sidekick. Oddly, Avengers #1 had Loki specifically state that the Hulk wasn’t malicious. Fast forward a couple of issues and he’s out for blood. However, his rampage did have some motivation, stemming from hurt feelings and the fact that the Hulk was basically an unloved child. In an era when villains were still mustache-twirling rapscallions, the Hulk, along with the equally volatile Sub-Mariner, was quite complex on those occasions when he did play the villain.
The Hulk also wound up bringing the Fantastic Four and the Avengers together as allies, when the two teams joined together to take him on in Fantastic Four #25 and #26. While the Hulk didn’t gain a new incarnation here, Bruce Banner did gain a new name. Stan Lee, famous for his terrible memory, mistakenly referred to Banner as “Bob Banner” in dialogue. When called on it by his readers, he stated that Banner’s first name was Robert, but that most people called him by his middle name of Bruce. Thus, Bruce Banner became Robert Bruce Banner. The Incredible Hulk remained incredible.
The Hulk made one more appearance in The Amazing Spider-Man #14, mostly as somebody to smack the hell out of Spider-Man. In the first appearance of the Green Goblin, Spidey and the Goblin wound up fighting in a cave where the Hulk happened to be hiding. Hilarity (read: smashing) ensued.
While the Hulk chugged along as a guest star in other folks’ books, Jack Kirby received a letter from a college dorm that had made the Hulk their mascot. This reflected the changing times for comics at Marvel: in addition to drawing kids in, characters like the Hulk were offering interest to young adults. That would become a hallmark of Marvel’s comic lineup for years to come. As for the Hulk, it was time to get his own book. And what better way to get it than by beating up somebody else and muscling in on their book? We’ll get into that, as well as many, many more shots in the drinking game, next time.